Tokyo, Paris, London, Berlin, Damascus, Rome, Athens, New Delhi, Madrid … These are some of the most emblematic cities in the world. Their influence goes beyond the limits of the state to which they belong and are considered as world cities. But what is a capital city?

Definition of capital city

The etymological root of the term capital comes from the Latin word capitālis, which literally means “head”, and in this case refers to the city that is at the head or front of a state in relation to the rest of cities. Therefore, this means that for a city to be the capital of a country, it must meet a series of requirements considered desirable to the population and its governors, since they usually develop the political and economic activities of the central government that affect the national state.

Commonly, a capital is the cultural and economic center and/or the most populated area, where the central government of the state resides, along with its members and its organs. However, this is not always the case, since each country chooses its capital based on its own criteria, where history and culture are determining factors.

The origin of the capital

The concept of capital goes back to the Roman Empire times, as well as the Byzantine Empire or the Caliphate of Cordoba. But in spite of its antiquity it has not been present in all periods of history. For example, at the beginning of the Middle Ages in Europe some courts were itinerant, which means that the rulers established a temporary settlement from which they could direct their kingdom.

1. The city of Rome as the Empire’s centre. Source:

This migratory form of government during the feudalism allowed a better supervision of the territory and reinforced the relations of the royalty with its subjects. The absence of written documentary communication, established later, required that many administrative matters of the kingdom had to be carried out in person.

What determines a capital?

Naturally, the choice of a city as capital makes it the reference of the territorial unit, but the factors that determine its capital are mostly geographical.

To begin with, the location of urban centres determines their subsequent expansion and development. The connections with the outside through roads, waterways or sea have been a great advantage to increase the flow not only of people and material goods, but ideas, culture and information.

London, for instance, has been the connecting point with Europe to England for centuries, given its location in the southeast of Great Britain on the estuary of the River Thames. What to say about Istanbul? Ancient Constantinople, Byzantine Empire’s capital, bridge between Europe and Asia in the Bosphorus Strait, and gate connecting the Black and Mediterranean seas.

The capital’s location

Broadly speaking, the capitals follow two trends depending on their location:

  • They are situated in the centre of the State or, rather, in the most accessible and equidistant areas for the rest of the territory, trying to favour a homogeneous and/or balanced development.
  • They are situated on the coast or periphery to enhance the connection with the exterior in case the opportunities for international development are greater.

In addition, the concentration of administrative and commercial functions of the capital brings a call effect from which the city increases its traffic of people, goods and services. It is very common to observe that the largest cultural, educational, commercial, leisure, business or health services centers are located in the capital cities, in order to facilitate their access to the rest of the country through an interurban capillary network in which the capital is the centre, regardless of its relative position on the map.

This territorial articulation of the state, in which the idea of a balanced development and full accessibility predominates, is in many cases far from reality. And that is why some countries have tried to find an ad hoc solution.

Another model of capitality

South Africa

Let’s look at South Africa. The complexity of South African culture and the conflicts that led to the apartheid resulted in a symbolic territorial configuration, in which three different cities (Pretoria, Cape Town and Bloemfontein) share the state’s capital since 1994.

In this case, the most populated city (Johannesburg) does not host the state capital. The powers of attorney have been distributed among the three cities, with Pretoria being the administrative headquarters where the central government resides, Cape Town the legislative seat and Bloemfontein the judicial one.

2. Capital cities in South Africa along its history. Source:

The decision to share the capital is a gesture moved by sociocultural integration in a culturally diverse country, especially after the apartheid conflict, where the majority of the population is composed of African people in 79.6% (Xhosa, Zulu, and 8 other groups), and the remaining 20.4% are composed of Dutch (Boers), French, British, mestizo and Asian people.

We can also find other similar cases in Bolivia and the Netherlands.

Bolivia and the Netherlands

According to its constitution, Sucre is the Bolivian capital, which houses the judicial headquarters, but the reality is that both the legislative, executive and electoral bodies, as well as the residence of the president are in La Paz.

In the Netherlands, the official capital is Amsterdam, although like Bolivia, another city has the organization and administration of the state: The Hague, seat of the monarchy and the executive, legislative and judicial authorities.

Relocation of the capital: Ankara and Astana

Certain conjunctures have led some countries to relocate their capital city, either because of geopolitical issues or because of the establishment of new governments.

Ankara was chosen as the new capital of the newly proclaimed Republic of Turkey in October 1923, leaving behind Istanbul in an attempt to centralize the state and diminish the strategic vulnerability of the capital, now located in the centre of the Anatolian peninsula. This decision had obvious consequences in the socioeconomic field, since the city increased their population from 15,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the 20th century to more than 5 million according to the 2015 census.

In Kazakhstan, Astana is another example of relocation of the capital. In 1994, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev promoted the designation of Astana (formerly Akmola) as the new capital of the former Soviet republic. The effective transfer took place in 1997 being one of the largest urbanization projects in the world known to date. Possibly, one of the reasons for this change was to provide a greater governmental presence in the north of the country, where a large part of the population is of Russian origin, to prevent future secessionist movements and at the same time to move the old capital away from the borders with China and Kyrgyzstan.

3. Astana, the model of progress and modernity that Nazarbáyev aimed. Source:

New foundations: Canberra and Brasilia

In the same way, the creation of a new city precisely designed to house the state capital has been the solution to end the disputes between two or more existing cities.

In Australia, it was agreed to found a new city in New South Wales, which gave part of its territory to what would be the new state capital: Canberra. Sydney and Melbourne were the best positioned candidates, but after a long debate about federalism at the end of the 19th century, Melbourne was approved as the temporary capital until 1908, when Canberra was finally inaugurated.

The case of Brazil is different. Its capital, Brasilia, was also explicitly planned for that purpose in 1956, but its motivation was to dissociate itself from the Portuguese colonialist past, a time when all Brazilian cities were founded on the Atlantic coast for the benefit of the metropolis. At the same time, the idea was to centralize and repopulate the interior of the state to avoid demographic polarization.

4. Masterplan of Brasilia, designed by Lucio Costa. Source:

In this case, the geography of the Latin American country explains why most of the settlements (also the most populated) are located on the coast: the Amazon forest occupies 42% of Brazil’s surface, and the river of the same name and its tributaries that cross it are navigable but the density of the plant cover is such that it makes difficult the creation of an articulated urban network with the infrastructures that this entails.

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